Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The myth of progress

Listen, children. I've had a revelation. And I want to share it here.

I've been working on being a "professional actress" for a little over two years. In those two years, I've had some incredible opportunities. (This is going to sound very Gilderoy Lockhart-ish of me, so I apologize, but there's a point to this, so stick with me...) I've been on sets with Rob Reiner and Cary Elwes, I've acted opposite Michael Cerveris under the direction of Steven Soderbergh, I've done one local commercial, and I'm currently in rehearsal for my sixth stage production since moving to Utah. Which is all so so so amazing.

But there have been (and continue to be) plenty of "no's" along the way. And there's something particularly painful about "no's" that come after having success. You start to think awful things like, "I've played a lead in a Hale West Valley show, and now I'm ensemble?!" Isn't that awful? It's awful. It doesn't feel good. It isn't good. It's snobby and prideful and self-serving. So then you swing to the opposite and start thinking things like, "Those times I was cast were just a fluke. I'm not actually good. I'll never actually 'make it.' I truly deeply suck." Which also doesn't feel good. Both of those philosophies distract from doing the actual work of acting.

So here's my realization. I've been thinking of acting in this "linear progress" kind of way. Something kind of like this:

(Don't judge my hasty clip art illustration.)

And it makes total sense that I would think that way. There are plenty of forces at work to put this idea in my head. Darwin, for one. This is the subject of a Master's thesis, so I won't go into details, but there's this weird idea that people seemed to take from the theory of evolution, and that is that everyone and everything is working towards becoming more "advanced." And it's all tangled up with fairly recent ideas of imperialism, too...that some societies are more civilized than others, and that they can bring civilization to the primitive peoples of the world.

Not only is Darwin and imperialism at work, but all of the mythos of the American dream centers on the same idea of progress, of slowly rising to the top, out of your own hard work. And this is how most other industries work. You slowly get promoted until you're at the top. If you don't get to the top, well then, you didn't deserve to be there, or you didn't want to be there.

But for acting (or a lot of other industries, actually), I don't think it's quite an accurate way of looking at things. And I don't think it's quite as healthy a way of looking at things, either. There are a few accurate things about it, but I think it's mostly problematic. It allows for both pride ("I'm at the top!") and self-loathing ("I'm at the bottom!"), and it creates a world in which we set people up as "better" than others. It oversimplifies things, and ignores all of the other factors that go into casting. It doesn't leave much room for complexity. It also doesn't actually reflect reality. You don't move steadily up that green arrow. But when we think of acting in this way, we're filled with resentment when we feel we've moved "down." Because "that's not how it's supposed to work! I'm supposed to work hard, get better, keep getting bigger and better roles, and then I'll make it!"

So, maybe it's better to look at progress in acting in a more "cyclical" way. Something like this:

(More clip art action.)

If you think of acting this way, there's less feeling of "I'm not making progress." There's less resentment when you get a smaller role than you think you "deserved" or when you don't get cast. You take the incredible opportunities that come to you without thinking they're owed to you. You can't think of yourself as above someone else on some march of progress to the "top" when they're just across from you, or next to you. And if you keep your own acting goals in the center, then everything you do can be seen as moving towards that somehow.

Fame and fortune and success are strange, often impermanent things. John Travolta was nominated for two Academy Awards. He also made multiple talking baby movies...between Oscar nominations. If you think of acting progress in that linear way, those are steps backwards and jumps forwards...the momentum is exhausting.

Of course, it can also be exhausting to move around the circle above, too. Especially if you spend a lot of time in the "not being cast" portion of it. That's hard. And the only thing you can do is be patient and keep trying. I have a friend who recently moved to New York to pursue acting. She said that when she's talked to people, they all say, "You've got to work steadily at this for ten years. If you can stick with this for ten years, you can make this your full-time job." But most people only give it a year or so. A year isn't long enough. You've got to keep yelling "F*** you, Matt Damon!" until you're where you want to be.

There's also the very real possibility that doing this relentlessly for ten years will take too great a toll on you. It could be that the exhaustion of moving around that circle of progress is greater than the reward. It's a scary thing to realize--that you might need to take a step back, adjust your goals. There are two kinds of dread when it comes to doing that: the dread that you're giving up too easily, or the dread that comes from giving up a dream you've held onto for so long, even if it doesn't fit you any more. What will people think? Who will you be if you don't hold this dream? But you will suffer less if you listen to your own intuition, try not to give a damn about what other people think, and make the choices that will make you happy and whole.

I'm still trying to shift my own paradigm here. But this change in thinking has already helped me find peace, helped me live in the moment, helped me do better work onstage and be a better person offstage. I hope it can do the same for you.

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